Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

Our Indian mothers

March 28, 2016

A nice piece by Mukul Kesavan!

Two pieces on disagreement and acceptance

January 31, 2016

Here is Mary Beard:

At this point, I’d like to observe just one thing. That it is possible to disagree over all kinds of things (tactics, short term aims etc) without being enemies. That’s life.

And, to push this a little further, maybe we dont want a world in which we all agree on absolutely everything.

Ruchir Joshi in The Telegraph:

In a discussion with friends the other day we mulled over the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ and found them both problematic. I don’t want to tolerate a religion or a social or political view different from mine, nor do I want my views to be tolerated – I want my difference accepted, just as I want to try and accept views different from mine. When you say ‘tolerate’ there is often an unspoken ‘up to a point’ attached, but when you say ‘accept’ the time-frame tends to diminish, to go away, and this is what is required for us to move forward to a more equal and non-violent society.

Winning elections and winning support of intelligentsia

December 19, 2015

From Telegraph:

Indira Gandhi is reported to have remarked to a friend that her stint in office after returning to power in 1980 was made difficult by her lack of support among the intelligentsia. Indira Gandhi was not an intellectual herself, and hence not given to making extravagant comments for effect, as intellectuals often do; she obviously meant what she said. But then why should lack of support among the intelligentsia matter to her? Those in political power are surrounded by officers belonging to the Indian Administrative Service and other such services, who, in a certain sense, belong to the intelligentsia and who advise them as a matter of course. She obviously did not miss their support. So what is it that she missed that, by her own admission, made life difficult for her in the post-1980 period?

The answer one ventures to suggest is that quite apart from the “advisory” or “expert” role of the intelligentsia, which bureaucrats are perfectly capable of fulfilling, there is another role, and that is to influence the public mind regarding those in power. Indira Gandhi was perhaps alluding to this role when she complained that her lack of support among the intelligentsia (outside of the bureaucracy), because of the memory of the Emergency, made life difficult for her in office. Despite her having won the election, her image among the people remained tinged with suspicion because of the barely-concealed hostility of the intelligentsia. In other words, it is not enough to win elections; one must additionally have the trust of the people. And in winning this trust, the support of the intelligentsia is of great importance.

A very thoughtful piece and a must-read.



Knowledge: insider versus outsiders

October 31, 2012

An interesting thought from Krugman and Henry:

Paul Krugman writes about journalists’ obsession with the quest for insider knowledge.

A lot of political journalism, and even reporting on policy issues, is dominated by the search for the “secret sauce”, as Martin puts it: the insider who knows What’s Really Going On. Background interviews with top officials are regarded as gold, and the desire to get those interviews often induces reporters to spin on demand. But such inside scoops are rarely — I won’t say never, but rarely — worth a thing. My experience has been that careful analysis of publicly available information almost always trumps the insider approach.

most of the time, you can learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings. And, as a secondary matter, if you graze free-range from a variety of sources, rather than re-masticating a pre-chewed monocrop diet of selected facts and opinion, you are likely to end up with a less biased understanding. Communities of generalists relying on a very limited set of information sources are peculiarly vulnerable to self-reinforcing illusion. I wasn’t in DC during the run-up to the Iraq war, but from what I’ve been able to piece together in the aftermath, the reasons for the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea was a combination of bad sources (reliance on people like Ken Pollack, who had a patina of apparent credibility), careerism (the general sense that you would do your career no favors by publicly dissenting from senior Republicans and Democrats), and substantial dollops of intellectual (and indeed non-intellectual, more or less flat-out) dishonesty.

Take a look! In this regard, this post of Ram Mohan on insiders and outsiders as heads of institutions might also be of interest!

Foreigners in their own country

April 22, 2012

It is said that the past is a different country. Mukul Kesavan makes a point about how in this country, there exist different countries in the present, and not just in the past:

Walking my children to their school in Brooklyn some years ago, I met panhandlers asking for money at the corner of every block. My technique was to either ignore them or to hurriedly give them change and move on. The natives did things differently; they stopped, exchanged greetings, and only then did money change hands. A fraternal acknowledgement of a poor man’s humanity doesn’t come naturally to desis. This has everything to do with the exclusions of caste. The caste system is distinguished from other forms of social differentiation not merely or even principally by its endorsement of inequality; what makes it unique is its ideological hostility to fraternity.

In India, the poor and the privileged, even those who are modestly middle class, aren’t divided by class; they’re divided by a line of control. The poor, to adapt L.P. Hartley’s famous first line, are another country. It’s a country that we write about or help make policy for — if we’re feeling curious, generous or charitable. Our concern is frictionless because their country and ours might be adjacent but they’re sealed off from each other. It’s only when this line of control is legislatively breached, when people not-like-us have to be admitted into our country, that we find reasons with which to repair the breach. Thus every episode of affirmative action in our history has been met with arguments from merit, arguments against a pernicious ‘creamy layer’ and now an invocation of the ‘real’ problem in Indian education, the reform of the state schools.

Take a look!

Gratification: delayed and instant

April 16, 2012

A nice piece on why netflix did not implement the algorithm which won the million dollar prize, towards the end of which I found this:

The viewing data obviously makes a huge difference, but I also find it interesting that there’s a clear distinction in the kinds of recommendations people that work if people are going to “watch now” vs. “watch in the future.” I think this is an issue that Netflix probably has faced on the DVD side for years: when people rent a movie that won’t arrive for a few days, they’re making a bet on what they want at some future point. And, people tend to have a more… optimistic viewpoint of their future selves. That is, they may be willing to rent, say, an “artsy” movie that won’t show up for a few days, feeling that they’ll be in the mood to watch it a few days (weeks?) in the future, knowing they’re not in the mood immediately. But when the choice is immediate, they deal with their present selves, and that choice can be quite different. It would be great if Netflix revealed a bit more about those differences, but it is already interesting to see that the shift from delayed gratification to instant gratification clearly makes a difference in the kinds of recommendations that work for people.

Link via MR.

Instrumental community of Cyrus C M Mody

January 29, 2012

When I started my PhD in mid-nineties, nano was the in-thing. I remember a reputed electron microscopist whose made a presentation, in which, he pointed out to a particular feature in a transmission electron micrograph and said “Previously, I used to call this a particle; nowadays, we call it a nanoparticle”. That pretty much summed up our attitude towards nano too. Many of us felt that nano was all hype and that there was nothing exciting or intellectually challenging in nano (I do have a friend who calls his blog nono-science!).

A few years into my PhD, I did get exposed to two new viewpoints on nano. One point of view, given by a reputed researcher in nano area, is that nano is a good pedagogical tool which can be used in training a new researcher in materials science and engineering to understand some of the fundamental concepts of materials science; this is because, many a processes and properties of materials, which are generally not considered as important in the typical length scales become important in nano-scale making it an interesting and useful area of study. The other was that nano has some uses in military and medical sciences because these are two areas in which other considerations override cost considerations; otherwise, in actual engineering practice, one might never use nanomaterials at all. Both these points of view are still true to some extent.

Reading Cyrus C M Mody’s Instrumental community: probe microscopy and the path to nanotechnology has given another view point on nano. The first is that nano was a response to “perceived declines in the disciplines”:

Over time, many surface scientists came to believe that nanotechnology provided the best way for them to revive or transform their discipline while retaining much of their knowledge base. As Jun Nagomi puts it

strictly classical surface structure determination is dead as a field. Or extremely mature, and not very fundable. So what I do now I can honestly bill as being related to nanotechnology. But when you look at the actual kinds of materials I’m working with, I’m still working with metals and I’m still working with semiconductors.

The other is that the decline in industrial funding is the reason why nano became popular:

Usually, though, governments created new academic nanotechnology institutions to occupy the niche once held by the big corporate labs. As Jim Murdy puts is

Bell labs is just a shadow of what it once was, and IBM has had to scale back much of its operation as well. So they are not the dominant force they used to be globally across surface science or nano….If they go away, we still have very good people, they just tend to be more in the universities than in an industrial lab. Universities have different strengths. They generally have a harder time getting good equipment. An industrial lab had stuff universities drool over….  That in some sense what IBM and Bell labs did–they brought a bunch of very good people abd put them in a central location at the same lab and equipped them well. To an extent that’s what the [National Nanotechnology] centers are meant to do at the universities.

Finally, Mody also makes the most interesting point about the identification of probe microscopy with nanotechnology and the reasons for it: the short answer — interdisciplinarity.

What is nice about Mody’s book is that he makes these points convincingly and in an extremely readable book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you like anthropology or history of science or science and technology or any combinations thereof, this is the book to read. I strongly recommend it.

One more bonus thing that I learnt from the book is the philosophy of Prof. Virgil Elings on the need for and teaching of instrumentation. As the following quotes indicate they are quite provocative and interesting:

One lesson from the master’s program that Elings carried into DI was that “the areas that students had done undergraduate work in made little difference in their ability to design instruments. Any deficiency, except of knowledge of math, could be repaired by some reading and talking with other students. All those esoteric courses made little difference.”

The MSI program was clearly quite different from a traditional academic degree program. It was, for some students, ” a rude awakening from the spoon-feeding of most undergraduate experiences.”

Elings became convinced that formal academic pedagogy was counterproductive: “[S]chools at all levels, practically down to kindergarten, do almost nothing to foster innovation and invention….[A]cademia can afford to spend some time on innovation since, in my opinion, a lot of what is done now is a waste of time.”

Have fun!

Beteille’s condemnation and Ramachandra Guha’s hope

January 10, 2012

Here is the last sentence from an article of Andre Beteille in EPW (4 October, 2008, which I could get thanks to JSTOR subscription of the Institute):

It would appear therefore that the people of India are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without ever discarding the one or the other.

I got a reference to the article from Ram Guha, who is hopeful in spite of what Beteille has to say:

But we must live in hope. Perhaps, in reflecting in the New Year on the events of the last half of 2011, elected politicians may be compelled to honour their Constitutional obligations more seriously. And perhaps, on the other side, civil society activists will now act with more sobriety and less self-righteousness. To both sides I urge a close reading of the full text of André Béteille’s essay, published, under the title ‘Constitutional Morality’, in the issue of the Economic and Political Weekly dated October 4, 2008. In my view, the essay should be mandatory reading for all thinking, reflective, Indians, in whose ranks I would (hopefully and generously) include the likes of Kapil Sibal, P Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Arvind Kejriwal, and Kiran Bedi.

Take a look, and if possible, get hold of Beteille’s piece; as Guha notes, he wrote it before the ascendancy of Team Anna!

Trusting experts: the social and natural sciences divide

September 14, 2011

Sean at Cosmic Variance:

Over on the Google+, Robin Hanson asks a leading question:

Explain why people shouldn’t try to form their own physics opinions, but instead accept the judgements of expert physicists, but they should try to form their own opinions on economic policy, and not just accept expert opinion there.

(I suspect the thing he wants me to explain is not something he thinks is actually true.)

I am a strong believer that good reasons, arguments, and evidence are what matter, not credentials. So the short answer to “when should we trust an expert simply because they are an expert?” is “never.” We should always ask for reasons before we place trust. Hannes Alfvén was a respected Nobel-prizewinning physicist; but his ideas about cosmology were completely loopy, and there was no reason for anyone to trust them. An interested outsider might verify that essentially no working cosmologists bought into his model.

But a “good reason” might reasonably take the form “look, this is very complicated and would take pages of math to make explicit, but you see that I’ve been doing this for a long time and have the respect of my peer group, which has a long track record of being right about these issues, so I’m asking you to go along this time.” In the real world we don’t have anything like the time and resources to become experts in every interesting field, so some degree of trust is simply necessary. When deciding where to place that trust, we rely on a number of factors, mostly involving the track record of the group to which the purported expert belongs, if not the individual experts themselves.

So my advice to economists who want more respect from the outside world would be: make it much more clear to the non-expert public that you have a reliable, agreed-upon set of non-obvious discoveries that your field has made about the world. People have tried to lay out such discoveries, of course — but upon closer inspection they don’t quite measure up to Newton’s Laws in terms of reliability and usefulness.

However, the recent talk by Sharachchandra Lele (and several discussions with another colleague about astronomical evidence for/against Aryan Invasion Theory) has convinced me that Natural scientists are equally unreliable if it comes to things in which value judgement is involved. So, anywhere, anything with even remote human interest is involved, one has to make one’s own decisions and not rely on expert opinions! It just so happens that in the case of things like Newton’s law, it is the engineering that is based on these laws that convince people to believe in them — at least for the majority!

State or stateless?

August 30, 2011

Andre Beteille’s piece is a must-read; here is one interesting view point from the essay:

Gandhi is acknowledged as the architect of India’s independence, and Ambedkar as the architect of its republican Constitution. No two leaders of a single country could have differed more on the valuations they placed on the State and on society. Gandhi viewed the State with mistrust and placed his hopes on the regenerative powers inherent in society. Ambedkar, on the other hand, was mistrustful of Indian society as he had experienced it, and placed his hopes on the constitutional State for the regeneration of the nation. It is hard to tell how he would have judged the disorder set in motion today by popular movements in the name of civil society. Indians have learnt to pay lip service to Ambedkar as the leader of the Dalits. But he was much more than that. He was above all the architect of the constitutional order which cannot be safeguarded if the State is kept under constant attack by every section of an expanding and discontented middle class.

Take a look!